Overcoming challenges with multilingual content reuse

Content. It powers business. It makes commerce possible. It helps us communicate our value, showcase our capabilities, sell our products and explain how we work. Content is critical to business. It’s the lifeblood of the organizations we serve.

Despite its importance, we struggle to produce all of the content we need. There’s never enough time — or enough money — to do the job right. That’s because traditional methods of producing content are time-consuming, imprecise, error-prone and expensive.

To overcome these challenges, we look for ways to eliminate bottlenecks and streamline content production processes. One common approach involves reusing existing content; repurposing it to create new content deliverables quickly.

Reusing existing content can help us produce more information products faster and with less effort and expense. But absent a prudent content reuse strategy, reusing content can introduce costly and unnecessary impediments to productivity. These problems are often exacerbated when we add multiple languages to the mix.

However, there is a systematic approach to content reuse — one that will provide us with the best return on investment, especially in organizations that produce multilingual content.

Content reuse is the practice of repurposing existing components of content to develop new information products.

For example, a financial services company might repurpose the description of a new banking service in several places. They might include the description in a press release announcing the new service, in marketing materials provided to existing and new customers, in a speech made by the president to the board of directors, on the company website and in training materials used by the company sales team. Doing so provides immediate benefits, like faster-time-to-market.

Nearly everyone at every company reuses content, but they do it with little regard for the negative implications of how they do it. And that’s a big mistake.


There are various ways to reuse content, the most common of which is the copy-paste method. Here’s how it works:

A content creator recognizes an opportunity to repurpose existing content. They spot the content they need, then they copy it from one place and paste it into another.

This approach is sufficient until content requires updating.

That’s because writers and editors — humans with limited capacity for exact recall — cannot remember all of the places they repurposed content. There’s no history for the writers to follow. There’s no cheat sheet. No record of their actions. No audit trail.

For this reason alone, the copy-paste method is problematic. In organizations where the accuracy of content is critical, where errors can cause significant problems, copy-paste is a source of both time-consuming challenges and unnecessary business risks.

But those aren’t the only negative implications. Organizations that rely on copy-paste are likely to produce content that includes errors, inconsistencies and incongruities. That’s because there’s no way for content creators to know when content they reused previously has changed. Nor is there a record of who else may have reused it, in what information products and for what reasons. Without going on an expensive and time-consuming scavenger hunt for all the places content is in need of updating, there’s no way to know for certain that content copied to multiple places is up to date.

Irregularities in content are cause for customer confusion and dissatisfaction. Confusing content damages brand loyalty and creates additional work for customer service and support staff. Finding and repairing errors introduced using this method are costly and time-consuming as well.

Problems get worse and more expensive to fix when the company creates content in multiple languages. When authors copy content from one information product into another, they often make slight changes to it for context. These subtle changes introduce incongruities in source content that begin to diverge over time — a situation that can create dramatic increases in translation costs, even in organizations that adopt translation memory technology to help control such expenses. That’s because copy-pasted content introduces variations in source language content that negatively impact potential savings from translation memory systems.

Organizations that view content as a business asset understand the value of content. They know what it costs to produce it. They know what impact — financial and otherwise — it has on their organization, their prospects and customers. They work to identify and adopt methods, standards and tools designed to improve the way they produce it. And they do so in a repeatable, systematic way.

Enter intelligent content

Intelligent content is content created by companies that adopt a unified content strategy: a repeatable, systematic plan that can help you connect content to customers, anytime, anywhere, on any device.

Intelligent content is content designed to be modular, structured, reusable, format-free and semantically rich. And, as a consequence, discoverable, reconfigurable and adaptable. It’s content created for automated reuse; content designed to help us overcome the challenges traditional copy-paste content reuse introduces.

Content development costs decrease because the amount of content an author has to create is reduced.

In addition to reducing content development cost, less time is required to review content (write it once, review it once, reuse it many times). Making proofreaders, editors and other reviewers more efficient gives them time to focus on what they do best: review, augment and improve content.

Intelligent content relies on software that maintains a content reuse history trail. When we make changes to content, the system ensures that those changes are automatically reflected everywhere that content has been reused.

When intelligent content reuse meets translation, significant savings follow. Content that is written once and reused many times can also be translated once and reused many times. That’s a win-win for return on investment.

When we reuse identical chunks of translated content, we extend our return on investment in both content creation and translation efforts.

Translation memory systems can help us better manage multilingual content production projects. They can, among other things, tell us which words and phrases were translated previously, allowing us to save money by repurposing existing translations (write it once, translate it once, reuse translation many times). However, this only works well when we have a formal content reuse strategy — and appropriate tools — in place.

Reusable intelligent content is identical content designed for reuse. It can be systematically identified and acted upon by software tools to ensure maximum return on investment for each and every sentence produced, in every language and everywhere it’s reused.

In organizations that produce multilingual content, a fine-tuned content reuse strategy can be optimized to help dramatically reduce translation costs. A properly implemented content reuse strategy helps us ensure that we write content once, reuse it multiple times, translate it once and reuse the translation many times. When we reuse translations, we save both time and money by not paying to translate that content again.

Copy-pasted content results in preventable content inconsistencies. The degree to which these disparities affect business varies from industry to industry. Incongruent messaging can lead to minor inconveniences and unnecessary delays, but it can also be responsible for regulatory noncompliance, expensive legal and financial challenges — even possibly death.

An intelligent content reuse strategy helps us avoid inconsistency and allows us to keep track of our content no matter where it is deployed. Storing content in a single, authoritative source helps ensure that the content we repurpose is consistent wherever it appears, reducing the likelihood of unintended negative consequences.

Despite the many benefits, there are challenges when translating content designed for maximum reusability.

Content granularity

Documents, web pages, messages and other content types are comprised of components of content. Components are small, distinguishable pieces of content. Granularity refers to the extent to which we divide content into smaller components.

For instance, a product catalog is a type of document. Catalogs are comprised of granular topics called product listings. Each product listing is comprised of smaller components of content: product name, description, photo, price, dimensions, features and capabilities.

The ingredients of a product listing are often comprised of smaller, even more granular content. The smaller our content components, the more granular they are said to be.

Granularity introduces both opportunities and challenges. The finer the granularity of our content, the more opportunity there is for context-independent reuse. Conversely, the smaller our content components are, the greater our challenges to control and manage them.

Let’s examine several types of granular content reuse, their benefits and their drawbacks.

1.Component-based content reuse

Component-based content reuse enables us to repurpose topics of content. A topic is a short, discrete piece of content, about a single subject. It is self-contained and context-independent, meaning that it doesn’t rely on other pieces of content to provide value.

Topics have an identifiable purpose (a product description, policy, procedure or value proposition) and usually consist of a title followed by paragraphs, lists, tables, charts or other illustrations.

Because they are designed to stand alone, topics can be reused identically across multiple content types. When designed for maximum reuse, content creators can use context-independent topics of content as building blocks for other deliverables.

Topics can help us ensure consistency across an entire set of related content products, regardless of which department created or reused the content. Topics can be hard to create at first, as content creators adapt their writing behavior and adopt new skills. Creating topic-based content involves not writing in the narrative (telling a story) and instead documenting a single topic at a time.

2. Conditional content reuse

Conditional (or filtered) content reuse relies on “if this, then that” logic. Authors craft several variations of content (stored in a single topic) that are automatically repurposed based on a set of predefined conditions. Actions, behaviors, status changes and other criteria are used to determine when a conditional variation of that topic is needed.

Conditional reuse helps us ensure the right content is presented on our ecommerce website, as well as in our email marketing collateral, user documentation, training materials and other deliverables. When an identical piece of content won’t do the trick, conditional content provides us with the ability to provide a more personalized content experience. It’s an intuitive way for authors to keep all variations together (in one topic) for ease of writing and review.

While creating content, authors use conditional tags (metadata) to identify different variations of a topic. Content management systems and delivery platforms use this metadata to determine what content should be used, where and under what circumstances (filtering out all the content that isn’t required).

Conditional reuse is a useful capability in content departments responsible for publishing content to multiple channels (print, the web, chatbots, interactive voice response). The content needs of each channel may vary — delivery channels often have their own specific content requirements. With conditional content reuse, we can make rules to ensure that the content displayed in each channel reflects those differences.

Conditional content reuse is also useful when targeting different audience segments or when we need to showcase different product features to different audience segments. In fact, whenever variations in content are needed, conditional content reuse can provide a potential solution.

There are several types of conditional content reuse and each is capable of introducing translation challenges.

2a. Paragraph-level conditional content reuse: Conditions at the paragraph level are typically not a problem to translate because the text of a paragraph usually contains sufficient context.

2b. Sentence-level conditional content reuse: Individual sentences within a paragraph can be conditionalized — we can specify triggers (conditions) that indicate when one sentence is reused instead of another. Translating multiple versions of a conditionalized sentence may be difficult without context.

2c. Sentence fragment-level conditional content reuse: Sentence fragments show up often in product content. Conditionalizing them for reuse is an option that can provide benefits, but because of their size, they also can be problematic to translate.

For example, a medical device company might want to conditionalize fragments of content to help ensure the terms they use to describe their products are appropriate for the audience being targeted. In content produced for consumption by patients in the United States the term blood sugar may be preferred, while in content to be delivered to patients in the European Union, the term blood glucose is favored.

The company determines if the content delivered to patients in each audience should be identical, except for the use of the terms sugar and glucose. To tackle this challenge, the company might use fragment-level conditional reuse to ensure the right words are used for each audience. When content is prepared for US patients, sugar is automatically reused. When that same content is prepared for patients in Europe, glucose is automatically reused.

Tip: Use conditions sparingly, and only where appropriate. Keeping the adjective and the noun together can help avoid some confusion during translation.

2d. Numeric conditional content reuse: Unlike conditional words, numeric conditional content does not introduce additional translation challenges. That’s because only the units of measure are translated.

For example: The meter is designed to give accurate blood testing results at temperatures between <cond=F “41°F and 113°F” ><cond=C “5°C and 45°C”>.

2e. Multiple conditions within a sentence or paragraph: Sometimes there are so many conditions in a paragraph there isn’t much actual content that isn’t conditionalized. See Figure 1 for an example. Not only is this difficult to translate, it’s very difficult to read in English, which also is likely to cause problems in review. The best solution for this type of complexity is different paragraphs for each of the major conditions.

3. References to content: Pieces of a topic, like a phrase, a paragraph or a sentence, can be reused automatically in multiple places. This is referred to as a content reference because content is stored outside of the topic and referenced in.

Best practices for fragment-based reuse/content references include:

■ Reuse complete sentences, phrases or complete blocks of text.

■ Proper nouns that are referenced should be the subject of the sentence and in the nominative case.

■ If you are translating into inflect-
ed languages where the ending of the word may change in different situations, avoid using content references for common nouns or noun phrases.

■ Phrases can consist of any combination of nouns, verbs and so on. Variables are often nouns but content references are not.

■ Because content references are stored outside of the content it is referenced into, provide the translators with both the content references and the content itself.

4. Variable-based reuse: Variable-based reuse enables you to set up a variable that can have a different value in different situations.

Variable reuse is useful when there are only slight variations in content (such as product names in different regions), but otherwise, the rest of the content is identical.

Variable reuse is most often employed to repurpose nouns. Replacement of the variable with an actual value is typically an easy process between English and a language like French, but is much more of a problem for inflected languages like Slavic and German.

If you are using variables, ensure you identify all the potential translations of the variable in the target language to ensure the variable replacement will work effectively. If it does not, consider using conditions instead. If you use conditions, you can use different instances of the sentence for different languages.

Note: It’s actually a best practice to have the variables translated in advance of the content, if you can.

General best practices for translating reusable content

Component-based content is often sent to translation on a topic-by-topic basis to speed up the translation. When you send content for translation, be sure you also send any referenced content. Be sure to send all referenced content so that it can be translated in context.

Variables are often contained within a warehouse topic (a topic that contains a number of small pieces of related reusable content), but a variable out of context may not be translated correctly. Always supply translators with content that helps them understand the context of variable and referenced content; a PDF of the compiled content is fine.

Finally, think carefully about your reuse strategy when you translate content to ensure that what works for the English text will also work for translated content.